JESENICE, Slovenia – After leaving the Karavanke road or railway tunnel that links the Austrian state of Carinthia to Slovenia, you will immediately see the area where one of the most successful players of the reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings grew up.
Anze Kopitar learned to play hockey in Jesenice, about halfway between two other hockey cities: Villach in Austria and the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana.
The city is known mostly for two things: its steel industry and hockey. And both are deeply connected with each other as the steel factory Acroni gave the hockey team its name.
The iron and metallurgy industry had its peak in the era of Yugoslavia as a socialist federal republic with more than 8,000 ironworkers from all around the country employed in Jesenice.
During that time Jesenice also became a hockey town. After some amateur teams had already existed in the early ‘40s, the forerunner of today’s Acroni Jesenice hockey club was founded in 1948 and the first artificial ice rink in former Yugoslavia opened there in 1954.
Jesenice became a centre for hockey in the northern part of Slovenia, developing players from the city, but also from neighbouring towns such as Bled, Kranjska Gora or Kranj. The most notable one in the old days was Rudi Hiti.
With 23 Yugoslav titles and nine Slovenian championships after independence in the early ‘90s, Acroni Jesenice has been the most successful club in the area once called Yugoslavia.
Many of today’s top Slovenian players were developed in Jesenice. Apart from poster boy Kopitar, more than half of this year’s national team players hail from the teams. This includes veterans such as Tomaz Razingar, the Rodman brothers and goalie Robert Kristan, but also upcoming players such as Ziga Jeglic, Robert Sabolic and Rok Ticar.
However, in the era of capitalism it has become more difficult in Jesenice. Steel production in Jesenice fell to a fifth or even less compared to its heyday and running professional ice hockey in a small city is less easy than it used to be before the break-up of socialist Yugoslavia.
The most significant change for Slovenian hockey came in 2006 when Acroni Jesenice was admitted to join the stronger Austrian league as the first foreign team. This also due to the fact that for the traditional teams in Carinthia such as Villach or Klagenfurt, the trip to Jesenice is shorter than to many Austrian cities. One year later Olimpija Ljubljana joined as well and in 2009 another team from former Yugoslavia, Croatia’s Medvescak Zagreb, entered the EBEL league.
Acroni Jesenice, however, won’t be part of it anymore next season after a financial collapse.
Driving to the Dvorana Podmezakla rink, a poster with the club’s steelworker logo indicates the EBEL pre-season game against Znojmo, on 12th August 2011.
As if the 2011/2012 season had not been played: the poster before the Dvorana Podmezakla rink indicates a game from August 2011. Photo: Martin Merk
It’s not that nothing has happened in the 11 months since, but it was a season to forget for the proud hockey town.
Acroni was dead last in the league, winning only 12 out of 48 games. The season ended with players waiting for salaries and Olimpija Ljubljana winning the final series for the national title 3-1, ending Acroni’s reign of four straight championships.
The toxic combination of underperformance and years of financial losses led the club towards bankruptcy with debts reportedly over €2.5 million.
“We have to do something to get better here,” said national team coach Matjaz Kopitar during his son’s Stanley Cup party.
While Acroni Jesenice is flooded with red ink, the hope is now on Mladi Jesenice. Mladi stands for youth in Slovenian and the club was founded in 1999 when the financial problems with the professional team started.
Also the Kopitars relied on the youth organization when bringing many juniors – boys and girls – onto the stage where Anze Kopitar hoisted the Stanley Cup before thousands of fans on Friday evening.
“I’m glad that the juniors of Jesenice step up,” Matjaz Kopitar said. “They have a new president, they have new people on the board. The most important thing is that guys who played the game are now involved in, also in Ljubljana with Tomas Vnuk. That’s a good sign. It’s one thing that should have been done before.”
The new hopeful president is Miha Rebolj, a 34-year-old former defencemen who played for Acroni Jesenice in the Austrian and Slovenian league, but also for the national team and in top leagues of other countries including the Czech Republic and Finland. His biggest success was winning the Czech title with Sparta Prague in 2000.
Rebolj started to skate and play at the age of seven when his father took him to attend a game. It was love at the first sight.
“Playing hockey in Jesenice was, and I hope it still kind of is, like a religion,” said Rebolj. “Every kid tried to play it.”
Rebolj ended his playing career in 2010.
“After turning the new page in my life I turned to politics – also full of hopes and dreams,” he said. He finished his management degree this spring and became a deputy mayor of Jesenice. In May he was elected president of Mladi Jesenice.
Although chasing pucks at backyard rinks has become less common in the era of video games, the club he chairs has more than 250 kids involved.
Anze Kopitar used to be one of them before he left for Sweden in 2004 and later to the NHL.
“Winning and raising the Stanley Cup is something that every hockey player wishes and dreams about. His success is huge not only for Mladi Jesenice but also for the entire sport in Slovenia,” said Rebolj. “His success will hopefully be seen at the start of the new season when new kids join our hockey school.”
Mladi Jesenice juniors watch Anze Kopitar onto the stage during his Stanley Cup party and hope to follow into his footsteps. Photo: Martin Merk
But to develop players, Jesenice’s house also needs a roof. Youngsters will need a professional team at a quality level to play for.
“Entering the EBEL league was a huge success story for Acroni Jesenice,” said Rebolj, who made the transition from the national league to the Austrian league at the end of his playing career.
He calls it a huge step for Acroni Jesenice in the organization of the club and also in other areas.
“We had almost 3,000 fans each game we had played,” said Rebolj. “We also opened the league for other teams by the mere fact that they saw that we can not only compete, but also win games and attract fans to every game we played, home and away.”
The downside was that the budget to play at that level was funded only partly. Rumours about players being owed money have arisen in the last few years. And nobody knows whether the toxic financial situation at Acroni Jesenice can be solved at all.
Without having a team in the EBEL league, Jesenice could lose what Rebolj calls a “window of opportunity to be a part of high-quality hockey.” It also means that many professional players from Jesenice are currently left without a job.
“If the management of Acroni Jesenice does not radically change its views on hockey and rules that apply, we won’t see Acroni Jesenice develop but rather the opposite,” said Rebolj. “But one thing is sure – based on the number of young players in Mladi Jesenice, ice hockey will remain as the sport of youngsters and they will carry the torch of history and titles won by our ‘hockey fathers’ to the future.”
Will Jesenice be back in the EBEL league in one year as fans hope after the upcoming one-year time-out? It’s obviously a big financial question, but finances are not the only issue.
“The biggest problem here is organization,” said Matjaz Kopitar. “You need to have the clue, you need to have the program, you need to know what you want to do. That’s the biggest problem, even bigger than just the money. But the financial hole is big and you can’t fill that hole.”
But Kopitar is hopeful that the situation might chance: “Step by step with an organization with people who are involved in hockey rather than taking from there, we can achieve a lot.”
Should Acroni Jesenice fold, it would be on Mladi Jesenice to fill the gap and continue the town’s rich hockey heritage.
“I’m convinced that with all the youth we have behind us and all the work and effort put into youngsters and also their hard work, we still have a bright future in the world of modern and high-quality hockey – maybe not next year, but in couple of years for sure,” said Rebolj.
“You must know that Jesenice has been a working-class town since the early ages,” he added. “Steel, iron and hard, honest and fair work in the steel factories – this is our proud past. We won’t budge or admit defeat. Hockey was, is and will be our sport and our way of life.”
Slovenia definitely has its special place in international ice hockey. And Rebolj hopes Jesenice will contribute with positive stories in the future.
“We must be the world’s miracle on ice,” he said. “We have just seven ice hockey rinks, only one club in the EBEL league now, one club on the edge of bankruptcy, the other Slovenian clubs are also struggling, but we still have a Stanley Cup winner and we're going to play in the Top Division of the World Championship next year!”
But while this country looks good on the international stage in relation to its size of two million people and less than 1,000 registered hockey players, the future of hockey will also be determined by solving the struggles that professional hockey in Jesenice is going through.